HL Deb 18 November 1991 vol 532 cc701-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Wedgwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they anticipate using units which form part of the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps for emergency operational tours or for garrison tasks elsewhere than in Germany or mainland Britain.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, units assigned to the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) will continue to be available to undertake short, unaccompanied operational tours in Northern Ireland, Belize and the Falkland Islands. With regard to the UK-based units it represents no change from the present situation. But, as the Secretary of State for Defence made clear in another place during the defence debate, in future it will be possible for units based in Germany to take a greater share of those so-called emergency tours, while still maintaining appropriate levels of readiness for NATO tasks, than when we faced the threat of surprise Soviet attack. Units assigned to the ARRC will not be drawn upon for garrisons in Cyprus, Hong Kong or Brunei.

Lord Wedgwood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. But can he tell the House whether my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence agrees that conceptually the rapid reaction force is different from the forces assigned in Europe within NATO at the moment? Can he say that, as such, it is indeed a rapid reaction force as opposed to what we now understand may be a nearly rapid reaction force? Also, do SACEUR and our allies in Europe agree that our units should be used for operations other than those to which they are assigned?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, my noble friend asks a number of questions. The ARRC will have training standards and training and exercise schedules to validate those standards just as NATO forces do now. With regard to my noble friend's second point, assigned forces already participate in the ETP. Therefore no change is proposed. We will still be able to meet appropriate states of readiness for NATO tasks while undertaking short operational tours.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, if units are to be borrowed from the ARRC for service elsewhere, how will it react rapidly? Is it supposed that we shall always have six months' notice, as we did in the Gulf war, of any necessity for the force to operate and therefore six months in which to train it?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, units assigned to NATO already take part in the ETP. Therefore again there is no change. We shall still be able to meet NATO readiness states while on short tours. In regard to the noble Lady's second point, the answer is no; ARRC units will train and exercise in peacetime for their role.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, did I understand the noble Earl correctly when he said that troops assigned to the ARRC will be available for garrison duty in Northern Ireland? If so, how does he explain the statement made in another place by the Secretary of State with regard to the ARRC's terms of deployment—that it must be capable of prompt deployment anywhere from the Arctic to the Mediterranean in response to any threat to NATO security frontiers? How can anyone trained specifically for garrison duties in Northern Ireland be rapidly deployed to the Arctic or the Mediterranean?

Further, perhaps I can ask the noble Earl to clear up a point in dispute. What proportion of British troops assigned to the ARRC will be territorials or reservists? As the noble Earl will be aware, NATO members were apparently told that territorials and reservists would constitute only 20 per cent. of the force. However, a ministerial letter stated that 26 per cent. of the British section of the AR RC would be territorials or reservists. Can he clear up that difference?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, with regard to the first point made by the noble Lord, we are satisfied that the Army will be able to meet its future commitments. The new force structure was based on an assessment of our future commitments, both wartime and peacetime. We are satisfied that 41 infantry battalions will be sufficient to meet all our commitments, including Northern Ireland, while allowing for proper training for the Rapid Reaction Corps.

With regard to the noble Lord's second point concerning the Territorial Army, the great bulk of the TA element of the ARRC is in combat support roles such as the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Royal Corps of Transport and the Royal Ordnance Corps. Those personnel do not undertake tours of duty in Northern Ireland which are carried out by regular forces.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House, should it be necessary to remove troops from Northern Ireland for the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps at a time of heightened danger when the Northern Ireland commitment has been reinforced, where those extra troops will come from to replace those removed?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. The new force structure is adequate for our commitments, including a margin for flexibility and the unforeseen. However, I can reaffirm that all decisions on the amalgamations of the regular regiments are final. Those amalgamations will be implemented over the next three or four years. Should we find over that period that we have taken on a large number of extra commitments for one reason or another which the Army at its then size cannot meet, we shall clearly need to look again at the decisions taken.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, would not some of those difficulties be more easily overcome if the Germans were able to make a contribution to our area of operations? What efforts are the Government making to help them free themselves in that direction, bearing in mind that it was the British Government in 1950 who imposed that prohibition on them?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the alliance as a whole is establishing the ARRC, which will be a multi-national force. Precise contributions have not yet been finalised. However, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are also contributing to the multi-national air mobile division. There will also be a multi-national division comprising contributions from NATO's southern region nations. The ARRC will also include other forces as made available by our allies.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while the best of British forces, being trained in desert warfare, can fight in the far north, as was the case in Narvik, they cannot be in two places at once? Would my noble friend therefore look again at his answer to my noble friend Lord Swinfen?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, again my noble friend makes a good point. As stated in previous answers, the Government believe we have sufficient forces to cover our commitments.

Lord Murton of Lindisfarne

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm the report in the Sunday papers that the King's Regiment, on a three-month tour in Northern Ireland, has had to be reinforced by a sub-unit of the Green Howards? That is to be removed and we hope will be replaced by a sub-unit of the Black Watch.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I am afraid that I did not read that report in the Sunday press. Perhaps I can write to the noble Lord.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am sorry to harry the noble Earl; I do not mean to. But it is not good enough to say that his noble friends Lord Swinfen and Lord Elton made good points. The points need answering. Will the noble Earl be kind enough to investigate the answers to their questions? The first was in regard to how troops which are stationed in Northern Ireland and trained for Northern Ireland activities—which are quite different to the activities of the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps—will suddenly be removed in the event of a crisis and, secondly, who will replace them. Perhaps the noble Earl will be good enough to write to me and copy the letter to the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Elton. I am sure that that will satisfy us.

Perhaps the noble Earl can answer my question too, again in writing. I am not asking for information across the Floor of the House. Can he say exactly what percentage of the British troops of the ARRC will be made up of territorials or reservists?

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I shall certainly write to the noble Lord on all those points. However, as I understand it, if troops are to be removed from Northern Ireland, with the Soviet threat being somewhat diminished—I believe the word the noble Lord used was "suddenly"—there will be much more of a time lapse.